Over the last three decades, the Los Angeles Poetry community has grown into one of the most diverse and active scenes in this city. Before the pandemic, dozens of readings were held weekly and usually at least four or five simultaneously on the same day in different corners of L.A. County. Nonetheless, in a gentrifying city, with the exception of a few long-term spaces like Beyond Baroque, Skylight Books, Stories or the World Stage, the poetry scene is transitory. Many readings only last a few years before the gallery or coffeehouse hosting it goes out of business or the folks who organize the reading find a demanding job that takes them away from poetry. This is where Hiram Sims comes in.
Sims is a professor, poet and lifelong resident of South Central Los Angeles who uses poetry to uplift his community. Sims has been deeply embedded in the city's literary scene from his late teens. Over the last two decades, he has read all over the city from prestigious universities and literary festivals to bookstores and backyard barbecues. Within a few years of being an active poet, he began noticing how ephemeral the scene is.
Sims's antidote is to open his library of poetry. Located on Florence in the Crenshaw District, just north of Inglewood and a few blocks east of Crenshaw, the recently opened Sims Library of Poetry is an outgrowth of the Community Literature Initiative (CLI) founded by Sims in 2013. A low concrete fence in front of the library reads: "Poetry Lives Here."
Originally housed in his garage less than seven blocks away, Sims now has over 4,000 poetry books spread across 18 bookshelves. They have a computer lab, some gallery space and even a private room for scribes that need a silent place to write. There are no other libraries in Southern California devoted to only poetry and only a few similar spaces exist across America.
Building Community Through Poetry
After earning both his Bachelor's and Master's at USC, Sims has been teaching at the university level since he was 24. Besides teaching at USC, he's also taught at Cal State LA, Southwest College and the Los Angeles Film School over the last dozen years. After his first book of poetry was published in early 2013, Sims wanted to do more to engage the literary community.
CLI started as a weekly Poetry class for poets to learn the craft and then publish a manuscript of their poems as the culminating project. The class appealed especially to writers that did not have Masters of Fine Arts (MFAs) in Writing or other academic credentials. Sims feels that poetry belongs to everyone and that many of the most impactful poets he knows are not necessarily classically trained. His classes are open to anyone.
Right from the beginning, USC supported CLI and gave Sims space to host his weekly Monday evening class. The classes have continued to become more popular over the last seven years. Now, because of the pandemic and the technology of Zoom, they have four different class sections going weekly.
The success of the classes is what led Sims to create the library. Once the pandemic ends, the classes will be held at the library.
Read a Book of Poetry a Week
"One of the assignments I gave students was to read one book of poetry a week. Some would do it and most would not," Sims says. He realized that many of them did not have access to poetry books; they could not afford to always buy books or that they did not have time to go to the library. He began carrying a suitcase to class with 60 poetry books, and he would loan books out to students from his big bag. As a lifelong bibliophile, Sims has always collected poetry books, but the need to provide for his students convinced him to open his library.
In 2019, Sims hosted his birthday party at his house, announcing the beginning of his poetry library in his garage. Guests came donating boxes of books. He started the day with 400 poetry books, and by the time the party ended, there were over 2,200. The attendees varied from his students to fellow Angeleno poets and luminaries like the celebrated elder, Kamau Daaood.
All through 2019, Sims was scouting locations across Greater South Central. He was very close to signing a lease in February 2020, but then the pandemic hit. Around June, his wife Charisse Sims gave him the answer. She told him that she had to close her preschool, and that he should turn her site into the library.
Initially, he hesitated, but he realized Charisse was right within a day or so, and he got to work. He credits her with always being one step ahead of him and a never-ending source of inspiration. She recently purchased a coffee-wagon and plans to operate it in conjunction with the library.
Sims was also inspired by Booker T. Washington's "Up From Slavery." Washington writes about how he and his students converted a former Alabama plantation into Tuskegee University. Washington and his students built 37 buildings over 100 acres in the 1880s and 1890s. They created a groundbreaking school that inspired the creation of hundreds of other schools across the South.
Washington was born a slave and was very young when the Emancipation Proclamation passed in 1863. He walked almost 500 miles to Hampton University to pursue his studies. Washington went on to excel academically. Shortly after graduating, Washington was appointed the Head of Tuskegee. Under his skilled leadership, the school grew quickly, and Washington became a widely sought public speaker. Washington's worldbuilding inspired Sims.
Design Your Reality
Reading about Washington building Tuskegee with his students reminded Sims that he can design his reality and that he could use the resources around him to create the vision he wanted to see. In this spirit, Sims has been working with his students since late June to turn the former preschool into a library.
Sims also learned about taking initiative and creating space from his father. His dad is a contractor that has worked on homes and commercial buildings for over four decades. "My father can do it all," Sims says. "Plumbing, electrical, roofing, drywall, the light fixtures, air conditioning. He's made a career out of putting material together to make a finished product." >
Sims credits his father with teaching him how to take raw materials and put them together in a particular order to make something better. His dad helped him build the bookshelves and instilled in him core values like the importance of relationship building and the idea that you can do just about anything with a blueprint.
Once word got out about the library, people started mailing books from all over the country. He's received boxes from the University of Colorado and different donors from Georgia, New York and Texas. Poets from all over Los Angeles and Orange County have donated books.
One of his key contributors at the library is Mimi Lam. Lam began as a volunteer early in the pandemic, but was so helpful that she ended up being promoted to the librarian. "My favorite part about serving as the librarian," Lam says, "is getting exposed to all these different types of poetry books. When I was younger, I felt like poetry was limited to a small group of poets, such as Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, etc. I didn't really relate to these poets; as a result, I felt discouraged from writing poems. However, when I found out that there were all sorts of poets, those who were people of color, those that looked like me, an Asian American woman, I started writing poems again. Being the librarian for the Sims Library of Poetry helped me return to an art form that I thought I had abandoned."
This spirit of inclusion is paramount at the Sims Library of Poetry. Sims reads widely, and his library reflects his eclectic experience housing an equal mix of formal academic verse, poetry focused on social justice, international poetry and historical poetry from centuries past. They now have more poetry books than you will find in the Los Angeles Public Library's main branch. They have individual poetry books, anthologies, periodicals, poetry textbooks, chapbooks, C.D.s, DVDs, biographies and other books about writing.
Sims also wants to use the library to pay tribute to the elder poets who mentored him like S. Pearl Sharp, V. Kali, Kamau Daaood, Peter J. Harris. Michael Datcher and Lynne Thompson. Another one of his mentors is Conney D. Williams from the lauded Leimert Park space, the World Stage.
Williams has been with the World Stage for three decades and in the last five years, he and Sims co-founded the World Stage Press together. "The Sims Library of Poetry," Williams declares, "is a place where imagination has literally been reimagined. It is the reality where ingenuity and necessity intersect. Sims Library of Poetry is an oasis built upon community sacrifice and love, and then there's poetry books and the connective tissue of legacy, arteries extending to the Anansi Writer's Workshop of The World Stage in Leimert Park and the legendary Watts Writer's Workshop. Kudos to Hiram Sims for his vision and a community committed to purpose and self-care."
Sims has not only got support from his mentors, but he's also gotten grants from Poets & Writers, one of the largest non-profit literary organizations in the country, the California Humanities Council and some of the Neighborhood Councils around South Los Angeles. Due to the pandemic, the library is not officially open to the public yet, but it is open for CLI students by appointment and in small groups. For now, classes are conducted over Zoom. Kuahmel Allah is a Los Angeles native, poet and the admissions representative at CLI. He recently told me that their classes have expanded enrollment during COVID-19.
The online teaching," Kuahmel states, "allows us to have students with us from Bakersfield, Palm Springs, San Diego and Sacramento, to areas like Cincinnati, Austin, Boston, even Iowa and Wyoming! We're learning a great deal about what is locally preferred subject matter from social justice to the church to erotica! The Sims Library of Poetry is growing, currently open to our students and soon the general public."
Hundreds of poets have studied with CLI and World Stage Press has published 62 books. A major part of World Stage Press is the "Living Writers Series," something Sims started after realizing that most high school curriculums used dead poets. Their newest release, "Through the Soil in My Skin," is by 25-year old Salvadoran-American poet Astrid. She recently told me, "CLI literally kickstarted my career as a poet and author by providing me the opportunity to publish my work. They also connected me with many amazing writers I now consider friends, so overall, I am grateful to be part of the CLI family for welcoming me into the L.A. writing community."
The Sims Library of Poetry is a literary landmark cementing poetry's legitimacy within the community. Sims enjoys creating space for poetry and his students. He believes poetry is a source of empowerment and self-determination. What's more is that he has seen too many readings, independent bookstores and galleries hosting poetry come and go because of rising rents or other market forces. With the Sims Library of Poetry, he is creating a sanctuary for local writers."Poetry lives here," Sims declares, "this library is a space where poetry will not be evicted."
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